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Pelican Bay Psychiatrists Resign in Protest

In the August '95 issue of PLN we reported Madrid v. Gomez, the suit challenging conditions at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. Federal district court judge, Thelton Henderson, ordered the California Department of Corrections (CDC) to implement significant improvements in the mental health treatment of Pelican Bay prisoners and to discontinue the practice of housing mentally ill prisoners in the Special Housing Unit (SHU).

Dr. Robert Benson, the former chief psychiatrist at Pelican Bay resigned on November 22, 1995. After Benson criticized CDC superiors for allowing the continued poor conditions and hostile environment at Pelican Bay, he was removed as chief, placed on "special assignment" and told not to talk to the rest of the psychiatric staff. "I was put in a 12-by-12-foot office doing nothing," Benson said. "I was not allowed to consult with colleagues on the prison staff."

Benson and another former Pelican Bay psychiatrist, Dr. John Morris, voiced their criticism of the CDC mental health system's failings in a letter by their attorney, Gregory Hartwell, to district court judge Henderson. Morris, who took over as acting chief psychiatrist after Benson was "exiled" to his 12-by-12 do-nothing office, also quit in November after he too was removed as acting chief as a result of conflicts with superiors. "My methods weren't approved of," Morris said. "When I sent 10 inmates out of the [prison] system to be cared for by the Department of Mental Health, the corrections staff didn't like that. In my opinion, they objected to this because it made them look bad and deficient in their care of these inmates who shouldn't have been left languishing in isolated cells."

Lieutenant Mike McDonald, spokesman for the prison said that "we still have approximately 30 seriously mentally ill inmates left in the SHU, and they are in the process of being removed." But Donald Specter, a lawyer representing prisoners, questioned the claim that only 30 mentally ill prisoners remain in the SHU because prison officials "have never done an adequate survey of the unit to determine the prisoners who are mentally ill. The evidence at trial showed that 25 to 50 percent of those [1,530] in the [SHU] unit were mentally ill." Judge Henderson has yet [as of Dec. 95] to schedule a date for a hearing to make a determination on which prisoners can be safely housed in the SHU.

"The biggest problem is the Department of Corrections itself," Morris said. "The department has a punitive mentality by the nature of the organization. That mentality is not always understanding of people with mental illness, and they therefore think inmates are faking. In fact, they are rarely faking," Morris said.

Both doctors said care of the system's thousands of mentally ill prisoners should be turned over to the Department of Mental Health. "If you treat them, then their life will be better in prison, and the prison will run better," said Benson. "If you don't treat them and release them, then you have more crazies on the streets, and they usually come right back."

The striking thing about the story of these two former chief psychiatrists -- the way they were sanctioned by the CDC for implementing reforms, and the fact that they were essentially forced to resign -- is that eventually the CDC will find a chief psychiatrist willing to "go along with the program" of perpetuating neglect and abuse of California's mentally ill prisoners, whose numbers are estimated to be as high as 20,000. The bottom line is that providing humane mental health treatment to these prisoners is more expensive than simply caging them. Unless the CDC is forced to implement dramatic improvements in the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, nothing will change.

Although judge Henderson ordered such changes over a year ago, the above story is illustrative of the fact that the CDC has no intention of complying. The Madrid v. Gomez decision was hailed as "a moral victory for prisoners" but it is proving to be a hollow one.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle (12/9/95)

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